When President Bush got 1st District Rep. Jo Ann Davis' letter
complaining about the National Flood Insurance Program, he probably knew where
to put it: in a fat folder of complaints about the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, which runs the program. By now, the folder is probably stuffed - and
what should get the president's attention isn't just the volume, but the
alarming letters from credible sources alleging problems that run the gamut from
mismanagement to corruption.
Davis has been agitating since Hurricane
Isabel hit town for more responsive service from FEMA. What spurred her to write
to Bush is the fact that 11/2 years later, more than 100 Virginia families are
still in temporary trailers, waiting on the insurance settlements they need to
put their lives back together.
Hers is just the latest in a chorus of
congressional representatives, citizens and consumer advocates calling for
investigation and reform of the program. At the most innocuous, the problems
they cite indicate a bureaucracy that fails to respond promptly and
appropriately. At worst, what they allege is systematic fraud and a process that
victimizes flood victims all over again.
Congress was so concerned that
when it reauthorized the flood insurance program last year, it tacked on a
provision directing the Government Accountability Office to investigate the
adequacy of payments to flood victims and the practices of FEMA and insurance
adjusters in estimating losses.
Davis earlier asked former Attorney
General John Ashcroft to order a Justice Department investigation. She
complained to former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that FEMA's review of
Isabel claims was about as independent as asking the foxes to report back on
henhouse security, since the review team was made up largely of the adjusters
and firms that handled the claims in the first place.
Part of the
problem, say critics, has to do with conflicts of interest and practices that
stack the deck against flood victims. Many of the complaints deal with the
private insurance companies that write the policies and the contractors that
FEMA uses to train agents and adjusters and settle claims.
Here are some
of the other allegations for the file the White House should be assembling,
based on investigators' findings and testimony before Congress:
insurance companies systematically lowball claims.
customers are promised one thing - that insurance will restore them to their
pre-flood condition. But adjusters are trained that coverage is narrowly defined
- and to limit settlements appropriately.
That the process penalizes
victims who don't have the savvy to appeal their settlements and who take
adjusters' decisions as final.
That the relationships among the agency,
the insurance companies, and the contractors are in some cases conflicted, and
the interests that win out aren't those of the people who are counting on their
flood policies to help them recover from natural disasters.
localities, people who incurred real damage can't get money they deserve. In
others, money is flowing to people who had no damage. According to news reports,
emergency officials in Mobile, Ala., Detroit, Florida and eastern North Carolina
are protesting payments to residents in their localities from storms that did
little or no damage.
Here's what the FEMA Web site says: "Flood insurance
can make you whole again." For some victims of Isabel and other disasters,
experience gives lie to that claim.
Davis is right to push to find out
why. It reflects poorly on FEMA and the Bush administration that getting answers
is proving so difficult.
The extent of the frustration
with FEMA is so great in some parts of Florida that an editorial in the Palm
Beach Post observed that people have taken to calling it the Federal Evasion and